An unsuspecting traveler falls in love with tribal life
The sun was low as the chartered bus labored up the steep dirt track to the wedding reception in the hills above Madrid. We walked up the last of the slope from the buses to the lawn in front of the hunting lodge, where we looked down on the distant city. Middle-aged men and young girls in uniforms circulated among us, carrying trays with drinks, canapés, and sliced Spanish ham streaked with fat. We stayed on the lawn until dark, then moved into the tent attached to the side of the lodge for the formal dinner.
There was a hint of the evening’s message when I heard that the priest who presided at the wedding had officiated at the weddings of the bride’s mother and grandmother. Surely, it should have been clear to me when the men of the tuna, friends of the groom wearing medieval short pants and mantles, threw their cloaks on the ground at the church door and sang to the bride and groom. During supper, the tuna—half fraternity, half glee club, each man a member for life—periodically burst into ribald or romantic song. I should have noticed that all the Spaniards knew the words and sang along. The point was obvious, but with my American eyes I couldn’t see it.
The world of the bride and groom was educated, cosmopolitan, international; their guests included psychiatrists, social workers, and lawyers from Scotland, Colombia, the United States, Great Britain, and Argentina. I was in the new Europe, where half the room spoke English and many of the foreigners Spanish. The groom spoke three languages; his father spoke five. The DJ played disco and American music from the ’70s and ’80s, and Americans, North and South, mixed with Europeans on the dance floor.
But after half an hour the music changed, as Spain, having failed to reach me, resorted to a more direct method. The DJ played a passionate music one could only call Spanish: castanets, guitars, a sensuous, serious sound. Nothing was said, no announcement was made, but the Spanish women all moved to the center of the room, the men stepped back, and the Americans stepped away in confusion. Europe, the modern world: all gone. Three days in Madrid, and I was finally in Spain.
Hands in the air, their hands much of the dance, the women swirled and spun slowly. Some danced with each other, some by themselves; others pulled 12-year-old girls onto the floor to teach them. Paco, a military psychiatrist in his 50s with a large belly, watched his wife’s dancing with adoration, as if he had never seen this entrancing creature before this magical night.
With their dance, the people of Spain jerked me into a world of magicians, hypnotists, gypsies, power, identity. Europe was a conceit, America a hollow thing, but Spain lived. When the music started, the European face disappeared, and I was among the people who had spent seven centuries fighting the Moors, from whom they had taken this dance as finally they had taken back all of Spain. The dancers were from a particular place, with a specific history, a great and long and difficult history.
The dance was intensely sensual and utterly proper. The few men still on the floor danced with their wives; mothers danced with daughters. Paco, whose mother lived with him, stood entranced by the mother of his children. His intense love for his wife was both proper and erotic, his pleasure wrapped round with stability, his self-control integrated with vibrant, pulsing life and love. When Paco talked to me later that night, he didn’t use the word for wife; instead he said tu mujer—your woman—his choice of words reflecting the fact that her womanliness was the issue.
As the women danced, an American girl of 20 walked by. “Will somebody tell me why there are only women out on the dance floor?” she demanded of me. She was angry, sure that if only women were dancing, someone was being oppressed. I thought they had been liberated.
“There’s a rule about this,” I said. “You don’t know it, and I don’t know it, but they all do, and they’re following it. We used to have this, but we’ve lost it. These people are a tribe.”
Later that night, I asked Cuca, a physician from the northern city of Oviedo, about the dance. Not knowing the word for tribe in Spanish, I struggled to convey the idea of what I’d seen. “I’m from a nation, a country. But you are a people.”
With the same gesture and the same expression I’d seen the new bride use when she was teased by the groom, Cuca raised a finger and wagged it back and forth. “No,” she said in Spanish. “We are one blood.”
Leaving the reception, I mentioned the dancing to the groom as we stood on the small porch of the hunting lodge. “Europe is nothing,” I said. “The music started, and all of that disappeared.”
He was a little drunk and was saying good-bye to friends he wouldn’t see again for months. Some, he would never see again. Scientist, physician, psychiatrist, he beamed, lighting up the night. “I love that kind of thing!” he roared.
My progressive American friends would say that to belong to a tribe is an evil thing, that tribes are the cause of discrimination, pogroms, and war. They would cite Bosnia, Kosovo, the Kurds in Turkey, the Hutus and Tutsis, the Cypriot Greeks and Turks. I might reply that there are tribes who make good neighbors: the Swiss, the Amish. I live in a neighborhood where I am surrounded by Orthodox Jews. When I run at night, I wave and say hello to them. They seldom answer or even acknowledge me, but I know I am safe, even from their adolescents, who walk to temple with their parents. My friends would say such tribes are the exceptions, safe only because they are few in number. I say that line of debate is sterile.
Better to say that without such belonging, we decline into the things that America has become. If we belong to nothing, we become no one. Our marriages fail, our streets are unsafe, our children become lost and go to their schools to kill each other. Better to say there is no escape from this dilemma, that this is our tragedy. This is who we are.
A second American woman in her early 30s, never married, came up to me soon after the Spanish women had danced. She was sweating a little from dancing. I had never seen her so excited. She was a social worker who thought herself progressive, and I wondered if she would agree with the American girl who had been so disapproving. Hesitantly, I asked her if she had seen what happened when the music began.
“Yes!” She was thrilled.
We talked for some time. She thought we Americans had never been a tribe; I told her I thought that once we had. Whether or not I was right, she made the wisest remark of the night. She was joking when she answered me, but she spoke with utter sincerity. Up on her toes, nearly hopping with excitement, she said, “I want to be in a tribe!”
So do we all.
From Chronicles (Nov. 1999). Subscriptions: $39/yr. (12 issues) from The Rockford Institute, 928 N. Main St., Rockford, IL 61103.